From Asia, With Love

Magical furniture from Tibet and beyond.

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As a kid growing up on the fringes of Chicago suburbia, some of my most vivid memories are of the annual pilgrimage my family and I made to visit the Field Museum of Natural History. It is one of America’s grand old museums, offering a rich and nearly endless array of curiosities large and small: glimpses into wildlife, geography and the wonders of ancient cultures.

Year after year, there was one specific exhibit which always drew me like a magnet: the enormous glass cases displaying a collection of artifacts from Tibet.  Hundreds of them. It turns out nearly all were gathered on a single expedition by a globe-trotting anthropologist around 1910. Many were already between 100 and 200 years old when they were transported to Chicago.

 Carved willow chairs, ca. 1860.

Carved willow chairs, ca. 1860.

The statues and large ceremonial objects were (and are) impressive. But as I stood there, mesmerized by the timeworn magic laid out before me, I was always most fascinated by the more utilitarian stuff: tools, clothing and personal effects that offer glimpses into day-to-day Tibetan life. Knives. Cooking utensils. Heavy skin coats, boots and mittens. And of course, there was the furniture.

Fast forwarding to Nashville in 2018, I once again find myself staring at relics from an impossibly distant time and place. For we’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with a mysterious Canadian who spends much of his time crisscrossing the Tibetan plateau, always in search of unique antiques.

 Painted pine table, ca. 1880.

Painted pine table, ca. 1880.

We’ve had a lot of really amazing days getting Royal Circus ready to launch. But one of the most exciting was the afternoon a truck rolled up bearing the first pieces we procured from this resource.  Uncrating each piece was a revelation. Elaborately carved tables, chairs and chests. Boxes and trunks. A mid-19th century workbench. Intricate designs, painted by hand with a level of patience most of us will never attain.

 Hand-painted large pine cabinet, meticulous recent reproduction.

Hand-painted large pine cabinet, meticulous recent reproduction.

All of us on the Royal Circus team unabashedly love this stuff. It’s not easy to get, and there isn’t much of it available. But without a doubt, it’s worth the effort.

Even when we know it’ll be bittersweet to watch these pieces move out the door on their way to the next chapter.

Meanwhile, we’re busy putting the finishing touches on our flagship Nashville store. We expect to throw open our doors to the public in just two or three short weeks.

Onward.

P.S. Follow our progress on Instagram.

Antique Cinema Lights: the Right Kind of Drama

Once you’re able to begin exploring the aisles of Royal Circus, you will quickly understand that we place special emphasis on objects which have made their way to us from vibrant, exotic locales. And you’ll be right.

Furnishings from Java, India and Tibet will feature prominently. But today, let’s talk about treasures from another fabled destination – Hollywood, California.

Geoff and Michael, deep in the industrial forest.

Each of the lights you see pictured in this post is the real deal. They’ve all spent decades on southern California soundstages and movie locations. They are made with old-school industrial quality, because they were meant to serve as serious tools. When you claim one of them as your own, who can say whether it may have been used in the production of your personal favorite film from the 40s, 50s or 60s?

But the story here gets even better. Each of these lights has also been lovingly restored by Scarpati, an acclaimed album cover photographer who also happens to be one of our dearest friends.

Some assembly required: Scarpati, with an assist by my son Grey.

Royal Circus is a labor of love for us, and restoring these old beauties is definitely a labor of love for Scarpati. After tracking down one or two of these rare creatures stashed in a forgotten corner of some cavernous L.A. warehouse – a feat in itself – he gets them to his personal workshop, where he completely breaks down each to its individual parts. Every knob, lens and metal component is cleaned, stripped and refinished, with impossibly rare missing parts found and fitted.

Often, lamps and stands are discovered separately. Scarpati is a stickler for detail, so he actually insists on matching every light to a stand made by the same manufacturer. New wiring, a fresh bulb suitable for home use, and you’re good to go.

Light 2.JPG

If by now you’re realizing that all this entails a tremendous amount of sleuthery and hard work, you are correct. Occasionally, the internet will offer up a similar example of industrial hardware from Hollywood’s golden age. But nobody, nobody, even comes close to this level of restoration. And we have them here. Go ahead, inspect them closely. The more you look, the more amazing you’ll realize they are. Talk about a quick way to add drama to any space.

The natural patina on these things is as good as it gets.

The gold letters being applied to our shop windows this week say “Furnishings & Curiosities.” So are these lights furnishings, or are they curiosities? As with many of our favorite finds, we believe the right answer is “both.”

We hope to be opening our doors in a few short weeks. Until then, please stay in touch. In the next installment, I’ll share pics from our first shipment of Tibetan antiques. The truck is scheduled to arrive tomorrow afternoon. Can’t wait.

Onward.

michael

And the Furniture Starts Rolling In.

The first shipment from India just arrived, and it’s even better than we expected.

Yes, a fully packed truck holds a whole lot of stuff.

Even when you spend years nurturing a dream, the experience of watching it finally come to life can be somewhat jarring.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a magical time for the extended Royal Circus family, and we’re beyond grateful for the opportunity to finally be here. Still, reality is really, uh, real.

One of the biggest surprises came on Friday, in the form of a fully laden 18-wheel truck. The truck arrival itself wasn’t surprising. But after spending a half day unloading our first shipment of furniture from India, we now understand firsthand how heavy a lot our furniture can be.

Not a bad thing, but a powerful reminder of how much today’s typical products have been stripped down, hollowed out and minimized to accommodate the free-shipping and price-war mentality that has begun to define mainstream shopping in our society.

 Some of our Indian industrial pieces + real-deal Hollywood lights.

Some of our Indian industrial pieces + real-deal Hollywood lights.

As we heft each of these pieces, we realize that there’s a lot to be said for heavily built furniture. It possesses a timeless character that I normally associate with antiques. We’re talking solid, hand-welded iron and steel. Real hardwoods vs. engineered wood products. Rivets. Hand-stitched leather.

This black credenza weighs approximately one million pounds.

Frankly, some of these treasures aren’t all that easy to move (or ship). But they have sufficient gravitas to become cornerstone pieces that can define and anchor a room. They are solid, substantial and satisfying to own, harkening back to a time when things were truly made to last for years and years.

Geoff taking our first product shots for social media.

I’m a big fan of things that get better with age, and I think the types of products we’re pulling together for Royal Circus will age really gracefully. From modern artifacts that clearly exude the unmistakable charm of handmade individuality, to timeworn 19th-century antiques sourced from Tibet and beyond, this is furniture worth hanging onto for the long haul.

In my next installment, I’ll share the story behind the incomparable vintage movie lights that also arrived this week (you’ll spot some in the pics above). Still lots and lots to do before we open our doors to the outside world, but it appears that will happen somewhere in late April. Look forward to seeing you soon.

-michael

Royal Circus: A Brand Is Born

An analog retail experience comes to Nashville’s Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood.

In the beginning, Royal Circus didn’t start out as a conscious plan. Over the three years since the idea spontaneously popped into existence, it’s always felt as though I stumbled onto an idea more or less already complete. A fully-formed thing, patiently waiting to be discovered. A brand. A state of mind. A quirky little world all its own.

In talking with countless friends and potential investors, the best one-sentence description I’ve managed to come up with is this: Imagine if Wes Anderson and Tim Burton teamed up to create a furniture store.

It became clear that Royal Circus provided the answers to a lot of questions that I hadn’t ever asked out loud, but now seem centrally important:

· How can we provide a meaningful antidote to those shallow, race-to-the-bottom retail experiences that have become all too common?

· How can we excite the imaginations of creative spirits who crave world travel and new experiences?

· How can we add a bit more joy to a customer’s life, beginning the moment he or she walks through our front doors and continuing on for years to come?

· How can we generate resources to help combat problems like homelessness in our own community, or impact issues like child trafficking in the cultures where many of our products are made?

· How can we combine the power of interesting design, playfulness and strong community to become a force for good? And have fun doing it?

This may sound like a lot. But there it is — the “why” behind our “what.”

The first print design, silkscreened with love by our pals at Grand Palace.

Because I’m a writer and branding guy by trade, a lot of the first things that came to life have been actual branding elements. The big silkscreened prints, store signage and marketing materials capture the ethos behind our eclectic product mix: a mashup of exotic cultures, hand craftsmanship and antique industrial , seasoned with a dash of whimsy.

Our space also reflects these qualities. We’re right in the middle of a huge 19th-century factory and warehouse complex, nestled among good restaurants, galleries and craft distillers. The neighborhood is truly Nashville’s brightest rising star, profiled just a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times.

Old beams and stone walls, fresh windows and concrete floors.

Our best guess is that the Nashville destination will be opening in late April. Starting here and now, I’ll be doing my level best to share the Royal Circus story as it unfolds.

Michael and Geoffrey: two brains, one creative nucleus

In the next istallment, I’ll give a sneak peek at a few of our products. We have Tibetan antiques, hand-made leather couches and a bunch of new furniture sourced from across India and Indonesia arriving over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, our little team is working hard every day to bring this dream to life.

-michael